With the weather feeling more like June than January, the San Jose Earthquakes assembled over the weekend for the start of the team's preseason training camp. Familiar faces from last year's near-miss playoff group stretched side-by-side with a slew of newcomers hoping to contribute to the Quakes 2014 fortunes. And with the superstructure of the club's new stadium rising above them, signaling the future of San Jose soccer, the mood was hopeful for a promising 2014 MLS season.
The MLS offseason is not what it used to be. A decade ago, the post MLS Cup to preseason camp period on the calendar seemed to stretch an indeterminable amount of time, but that is no longer the case. Since the conclusion of Sporting Kansas City's penalty kick triumph back on December 7, the league has conducted multiple drafts and signed numerous big-name players from overseas. More than once a day, a team in MLS was in the news, for all the right reasons. The break between seasons is no longer viewed as a two-month vacation.
The Earthquakes were certainly included in the offseason melange of news and announcements, though never to the extent that some clubs were in making big-money player signings, as head coach Mark Watson and general manager John Doyle went about tinkering with a roster that finished out of the MLS Cup playoffs on a tiebreaker ruling. As has been well chronicled, the Quakes had the best record in MLS over the second half of the season.
But will the roster moves to date actually improve a team that arguably would have been competitive without any changes to the 2013 squad. Have the Earthquakes made the right additions to balance the subtractions? Only the games will answer that question, but as the team does start camp, it does appear more needs to be done.
According to the Earthquakes website, the team roster consists of 25 signed players, of which 18 were on the squad at the end of last season:
Goalkeeper (2): Jon Busch, David Bingham
Defender (6): Victor Bernardez, Clarence Goodson, Jason Hernandez, Tommy Muller, Jordan Stewart, Ty Harden
Midfielder (5): Sam Cronin, Walter Martinez, Shea Salinas, Cordell Cato, Sam Garza
Forward (5): Chris Wondolowski, Alan Gordon, Steven Lenhart, Adam Jahn, Mike Fucito
Of the 18, eight would be penciled into the Starting XI based on experience and need. Wondolowski and Lenhart up top is without question at this point, and center back duo Goodson and Bernardez will carry the flag for the defense. A big question mark remains over Cronin's fitness following offseason surgery, but he is expected back at full strength at some point during preseason. Salinas, Stewart, and Busch round out the returning starters, while Cato could make it nine returners if he has an impressive camp.
Since New Year's Day, the Quakes have added seven more players to get to their current total. Doyle and Watson have used trades, overseas signings, and the MLS Re-Entry Draft to bolster the roster to 25. That leaves between three and five spots left on the projected 30-man roster (up to two slots can be left open and used to earn allocation money from the league). The newest Earthquakes:
Goalkeeper (1): Bryan Meredith
Defender (2): Brandon Barklage, Shaun Francis
Midfielder (3): Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi, Atiba Harris, Tommy Thompson
Forward (1): Billy Schuler
From the group of new year's signings likely emerge the remaining three players in the Quakes projected Starting XI. Harris came from Colorado in a straight-up swap for disgruntled midfielder Marvin Chavez and is likely to take over the Honduran's spot on the wing. Pierazzi, tasked more as a defensive midfielder during his career with AC Ajaccio, takes over for Rafael Baca, now with Cruz Azul in Mexico. Barklage, a part-time starter for the New York Red Bulls last season, is a candidate to take over for Steven Beitashour, reported to be heading to the Vancouver Whitecaps. The wildcard in the group is homegrown signing Thompson, who, while only 18-years old, is poised to make a contribution to the Quakes sooner than later.
The Earthquakes are still searching for players to add to the roster -- Doyle made it clear last week that he still favors bringing in an experienced central attacking midfielder -- which is likely to change how Watson lines up his squad for the season opener in March. And in addition to players not yet identified, the team has a cast of five draft picks that will be competing in the preseason for a spot on the roster:
Goalkeeper (1): Billy Knutsen
Defender (2): Joe Sofia, Devante Dubose
Midfielder (2): JJ Koval, A.J. Corrado
Koval was the Earthquakes first round selection in the MLS SuperDraft and leads the quintet in terms of readiness to make the club. The Stanford midfielder is very familiar to the Quakes coaching staff, and in the team's first preseason training session, bested everyone else in the beep test. Especially with Cronin hurting, Koval looks certain to get plenty of playing opportunities during preseason friendlies. Of the remaining four draft picks, Sofia and Corrado come to San Jose with qualifications that could see them added to the 2014 roster.
So far, so good? The Earthquakes were not a bad team last year -- at least from July on -- and the offseason roster building does little to change that impression. Still, some of the absences are glaring, and it still is incumbent on Doyle and Watson to add players to the roster that can make an impact on the first team and build depth on the bench. The absences of Chavez and Beitashour are the most glaring holes to fill. But the losses of starters Baca and Justin Morrow, as well as trusted back-ups Dan Gargan and Ramiro Corrales, leave the team's depth wanting.
The preseason is only a weekend old, but by no means is the 2014 San Jose Earthquakes roster settled.
Changes from 2013 roster:
Goalkeeper (1): Evan Newton
Defender (5): Dan Gargan, Steven Beitashour, Justin Morrow, Nana Attakora, Peter McGlynn
Midfielder (6): Marvin Chavez, Ramiro Corrales, Jaime Alas, Rafael Baca, Mehdi Ballouchy, Brad Ring
Forward (2): Marcus Tracy, Cesar Diaz Pizarro